Finding Shangri-La

In Frank Capra’s film about a group of people who are on a hijacked plane that crashes in the Himalayan Mountains, Lost Horizon, the arduous journey through narrow, snowbound mountain passes leads them to Shangri-La, a beautiful region hidden from the cold, an area that has perfect climate and magical properties. A small utopian society has been established there led by a High Lama who is looking for a successor now that he recognizes he is about to die. The aging process there being decelerated, he is now hundreds of years old. Based on the 1933 novel by James Hilton, the film is now a Capra classic. For me, it is a metaphor of the repetitive journey to reach the zone, that place of focus when I can write freely, immersed in a project. Getting there is not easy for me. It sometimes feels as if I am trudging through snow, blinded by a blizzard. I don’t always make it. But when I do make it, clarity occurs. I can write with focus, come up with ideas, and concentrate. While there, I am not deterred by the “outside” world. In the film the main character, Robert Conway, leaves Shangri-La but regrets it and much later manages to find it again. I am still finding ways to get myself to that place where I am the most productive and focused, and though occasionally I can slip into it without too much strain, other days it feels like an onerous effort that may or may not succeed. Once there, I am reluctant to leave. As Annie Proulx said in an interview, “when I’m in the groove, believe me, I’m in the groove. Nothing gets in the way. I do it.” However, she adds, “I don’t have a routine. I struggle to find time to write” (Paris Review).

Many of my writer friends do not struggle in the same way. A few are able to get to the zone quickly, without incident or struggle. One friend is a binge writer. She escapes to a timeshare or mountain cabin and writes steadily for weeks though she may not write again for a long time. Other friends are the proverbial daily writers, up early or late, with regular patterns, hammering out a few pages at each sitting. Each writer I question has a specific routine, pattern, or method that might involve a variety of elements. Some writers prefer to write in the same place, a desk or the dining room table, while others like to mix it up by writing in hotel lobbies, coffee houses, or parks. Some write in longhand, others only on the computer, and some on old-fashioned typewriters. Whatever the elements, I am interested in what I am calling “writing customs,” the settings that writers choose, the writing process, writing habits, and writing preferences, and these things are at the heart of this blog.

Last year, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks and found that I had good concentration there. A story, just published in an online literary magazine, emerged out of my times at a few Starbucks locales (Shark Reef Literary Magazine). Although I have seen myself as a home-desk kind of writer, and I enjoy the micro-environment of my desk space, more often than I would have thought I find myself in public spaces, writing with the desired abandon, inspired by the atmosphere around me.

I invite you to share your ideas, preferences, and writing customs.

(Painting, “A Clear Horizon,” by Eric Peavy).

McGill, Carla. “Starbucks Chronicles.” Shark Reef Literary Magazine, Issue 27, Winter 2016.

Proulx, Annie, interviewed by Christopher Cox. “The Art of Fiction No. 199.” Paris Review.Spring 2009. Web. Jan 12, 2016.

16 thoughts on “Finding Shangri-La

  1. I love hearing that you enjoyed writing in a public space. I have had difficulties with that myself, although two of the poems in my book were written at my favorite diner type restaurant, Magpie’s Grill in La Canada. I’m pretty sure it was a fried zucchini . . . .
    Welcome to WordPress, Carla!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a lovely writing space in “my office” that is all in black, ivory, and coral, my favorites. My computer is very antiquated, but adequate. Sunlight streams in (most days) on 3 sides. But that is Kana’s bedroom now so she doesn’t want to be in there during the day as well as night, and anyway I am always so busy that I usually end up writing at my laptop in the kitchen amidst phones ringings and cats clamoring and a husband talking (a lot). It sounds worse than it is–or maybe not! I write whenever I can grab some time. other than blogging I haven’t written much for several months :(.

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  2. Luanne – Thanks for the description. The office sounds lovely. I, too, seem to drift to the public spaces of the house and often end up at the dining room table. I notice that you are an early riser as far as writing your blog. 🙂


  3. My environment was the couch and a laptop, but I recently went back to writing longhand after a stuck period and it has worked wonders – carrying a notebook and pen everywhere has made me want to write every day.


      1. I changed my location in as much as I wrote everywhere! I took the notebook and pen to work, to bed, wherever I was and it meant that I wrote in many slices of time that before I would have seen as too short or not conducive to writing. For the foreseeable future, that’s how I’ll be writing – it’s a return to my teenage self writing in exercise books.


  4. Luanne is a special friend. ♡ Your post brought a long response on her blog. Thank you for your reply.
    I like sitting with my feet up and blogging. I write my posts now on a cell phone. Notes and rough draft found on scraps of paper. My youngest daughter also blogs. She gave me a beautiful journal to write down quotes. I have written 4 children’s books and one ABC book illustrated by myself. I went through the 90’s submitting and sending in SASE and receiving most copies back. I have a rather long rough draft of a mystery which maybe someday when I don’t work 9 and 10 hour days I will re-write. 🙂
    Carla, I liked reading about your Starbucks Chronicles. Great title and place to hang out. Wish they have “free refills!” ha ha! 🙂


    1. Glad to know that you are also a friend of Luanne’s! She is remarkable! You are a writer AND an illustrator? That must work well for children’s books. Is the market for them a difficult one? I wish you success with all of those accomplishments. I have never tried to write posts on a cell phone, as I have to type in with one finger (iPhone), and it takes forever. You probably build up speed if you do that often. Thanks for reading the Starbucks Chronicles! Come back again!


  5. Hello, Carla! I came to your blog also through Luanne 🙂 I’ve been a “binge writer,” most notably for the National November Writing Month, but unless I have a deadline, I’ve found it difficult to develop the habit of writing. Without NaNoWriMo, I probably wouldn’t have much to show, but thanks to the insanity of writing 50,000 w0rds in 30 days, I now have several rough drafts of novels impatiently waiting for revisions. The bulk of my writing takes place where I am now: at a small workstation in my bedroom, with an iMac desktop computer. I once had the delicious experience of writing part of a novel on my iPad (with a portable keyboard) in a hotel room in New Orleans a few years ago. It actually made me feel more like a writer than writing in my own room. I write to myself in various places, usually with whatever is at hand. I started using a fountain pen recently to experience an old-school kind of writing. That I would like to make a habit (if only to keep the fountain pen primed), but I have to write around my day job and other obligations and so … I can imagine writing in a place like Starbucks. Actually I did once and was fairly productive. The only thing was worrying over someone recognizing me and coming over. Fortunately that didn’t happen 😉

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  6. Thanks for this comment! I’m so happy to communicate with a few of Luanne’s readers. 🙂 I’m glad you mentioned NaNoWriMo. I have considered it for the past few years but have not yet taken that step. Do you recommend it? Binge writing sounds quite satisfying, if I think about being able to get immersed in a single project that keeps me focused as it develops. Is there any danger of other readers being able to plagiarize what you have written, or how does the organization know if you have met the daily word count?


  7. Interesting reading all these comments Carla. Sent over by Luanne. I have stopped writing. I have too many projects on the boil. Trying to finish illustrating a picture book. But when I do write, (blog, etc. Learning to edit NaNoWriMo draft) I have a little corner desk in my kitchen. I need silence. If I was to sit in a cafe it would be to inspire story ideas but the actual writing I need to focus. Just the birds outside for company. I love how it is different for everybody and the challenge is to find your go zone I guess.

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  8. Hi Kath – Thanks for your comment! Luanne was so nice to send a few of her readers to my blog! So, you are a visual artist as well as a writer. Nice to combine those two talents. I like the idea of birds for company as you sit at your desk in the kitchen. Feel free to post a photo if you wish. I also watch the birds on my patio as I write at my desk in the den! Yes, I love the differences as well, and I am picking up some good new ideas from readers and other bloggers.


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